By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

It wasn't until Monday morning that I figured out that there's way too much pressure on Danica Patrick.

I spent most of Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway pissed -- upset that Danica never found her way to the front of the Indianapolis 500.

With about 10 laps to go, I was so frustrated I vowed I'd never come back to the race. Danica was the only driver I had any positive or negative passion about, and watching her circle IMS six to 15 seconds behind the leader for the better part of three hours had nearly put me to sleep.

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Watch a replay of the 2006 Indy 500 Friday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.

Hey, I love the Indy 500 as much as any Hoosier native, but the race is just no fun when you only care about one driver, and you're not sauced on Natty Light and walking the infield begging trailer-park supermodels to flash their boobies.

Back in the day, I despised Johnny Rutherford and Danny Ongais, loved Tom Sneva and Gordon Johncock and thought A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and the Unsers were nearly as cool as Magic, Larry, Joe Montana and the Jackson 5.

Oh, I'll just say it. The Indy Car series used to have as many compelling personalities as NASCAR.

For 195 laps Sunday, all I cared about was Danica. She ran as high as fifth, but she was never a legitimate factor. She appeared to be slow after restarts and in traffic and suffering from poor gas mileage.

Those of us infected with Danicamania were in the process of learning auto racing's toughest lesson. It's nearly impossible for one driver to make a race interesting, let alone save open wheel racing.

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A 500-mile race is far different from a 100-meter dash. Danica needs much more support than Carl Lewis. She needs rivals.

And maybe, if Indy Racing League founder and Indy 500 promoter Tony George is lucky, a rival for Danica emerged in the final five laps of Sunday's race.

By dominating all but the last half mile of the final five laps, 19-year-old Marco Andretti, the son of Michael and the grandson of Mario, made the 90th running of the Indy 500 compelling. Three things fascinate Americans when it comes to spending our entertainment dollars: sex, race and youth.

Danica, of course, has the whole sex thing covered. Marco could give the IRL a child prodigy. And if Tony George is smart, he'll do whatever it takes financially to lure the Tiger Woods of motorcycles, James Bubba Stewart, to the IRL.

You put Danica, Marco and Bubba in the same race and in the same series and on top-flight teams and you've got a chance at restoring Indy to its former glory. Heck, you've got a chance at making Indy -- at least race day -- better than it ever was.

It's a shame Marco Andretti didn't win Sunday's 500. He led nearly all of lap 199, and was edged at the start-finish line by Sam Hornish Jr. by .06 of a second (half a car length). It was the second-closest Indy 500 finish in the history of the race.

That and a quarter will buy you a phone call to Hornish's parents, so you can tell the only people who care, the only people truly happy that Hornish won.

Junior has no personality, and his name doesn't carry quite the marketing weight of Earnhardt, Griffey or Andretti.

Hornish Jr. doesn't give casual race fans like me another reason to come back to IMS next year. If I do return, I'll come back to see Marco and Danica do battle at the front of the field.

The IRL now has two drivers I care about, which is a 100-percent improvement. You have to call that progress. The problem the IRL has is I'm not going to wait forever for them to get inside the winner's circle.

It's not fair, but we -- sports fans and sports writers -- don't have a lot of patience after we hype an entertainer/athlete as a superstar. We've been spoiled. Just one year after her professional debut, Jenna Jameson swept the 1996 AVN Awards, winning best new starlet, best female actress and best couples sex scene for her unforgettable work in "Wicked One" and "Blue Movie."

You could argue that only Tiger Woods' youthful handling of his 3-wood has rivaled Jenna's early work. Three months after turning pro, Woods won the Las Vegas Invitational. He won the Masters -- the Indy 500 of golf -- by 12 strokes the first time he played the course as a pro.

Had Marco held off Hornish, he could've joined Jameson, Woods and LeBron James as prodigies capable of energizing an entire industry.

Marco and Danica must win this season on the IRL circuit. And next year one of the two has to win the only race that matters. I won't sit and fight off sleep for 490 miles waiting for another potential start to surface.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. His newspaper is celebrating his 10 years as a columnist with the publishing of Jason's first book, "Love Him, Hate Him: 10 Years of Sports, Passion and Kansas City." It's a collection of Jason's most memorable, thought-provoking and funny columns over the past decade. You can purchase the book at TheKansasCityStore.com. Jason can be reached by e-mail at ballstate68@aol.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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THERE IS HOPE FOR INDY